Motherhood is a profound blessing and should be deep source of meaning for women, but a mom also faces sleepless nights, strained schedules, and the competing needs of her kids, her spouse, her extended family, her community, and finally HERSELF! What allows some moms to thrive and to find deep satisfaction in motherhood despite the inevitable challenges while others do not thrive emotionally?
Two researchers at Arizona State University asked this question and in a newly-released study they cite 4 key factors that protect mom’s well-being and sense of satisfaction:
1. Unconditional Acceptance
Moms who can say, “I feel seen and loved for the person I am at my core” do better in motherhood than moms who feel their value depends on their performance or appearance. Every mom needs people who will allow them to be honest about their failures, make amends, find new hope and direction, and still be cherished for the unique, unrepeatable persons they are. And this happens to be the model of the love, mercy, and reconciliation that Christ offers us.
2. Feeling Comforted When Needed
Moms need to be able to say, “When I am deeply distressed, I feel comforted in the way I need it.” When you are a mom and you feel distressed it is very scary. You have these little people in your care and their very lives depend on you. We all need somebody who will really listen to us and then comfort us in the way WE need when we are struggling so we can get a little perspective on the problem. Sometimes that means somebody will just listen to us without trying to fix the problem — we just need emotional comfort. At other times we need them to fix it in some way – perhaps through physical relief (a nap, a chance to get out of the house for an hour to clear our head). Only somebody with some level of empathy will be capable of tuning into a mother’s real need. Without this capacity for attunement, the other person will tend to do what they think we need or what they would want themselves.
3. Authenticity in Relationships
Feeling like you have to put on a show all the time is really depressing — literally. All mothers will have moments when her ideal for herself as a mom does not match up with what’s on her mind. You love your children but at some point you will probably feel depleted or desperate or even downright irrational. When mothers feel like they have to be perfect around their friends and family, when they can’t be honest with anyone about what they are feeling and thinking, they are at a much higher risk for depression. When you can’t be authentic, you cannot thrive.
Once when my third child was a newborn and my two older kids were still very young, my husband went on an extended work trip. At one point I was talking to him on the phone and I had not slept in two days because my older kids would not go to bed and the baby was still waking every 2 to 3 hours. I felt desperate and helpless! Well, I told him how I was really feeling not what I thought he wanted to hear. I was starting to feel a little kooky and I was not coping well. I was at the if-these-kids-don’t-go-to-sleep-I’m-going-to-smack-them point. When I shared with my husband how I felt, he cut his meeting short, got on an airplane, and came home. He didn’t shame me or say “what the heck is wrong with you?” or pat me on the head with a “you are so strong you can handle anything.” He came home and I went to bed and then I felt better. I am grateful that I could be honest with him about my REAL feelings even though they fell short of what I hoped for myself as a mom. Because I had that freedom, it allowed him to comfort me in the way I most needed — physical relief (see number 2 above).
4. Friendship Satisfaction
Moms do better emotionally in motherhood when they have a few friends in their lives who can give and receive love. I think particularly for women, the quality of our friendships has a deep impact on our well-being.
The bottom line: nurturing adult relationships keeps a mom “happy, healthy, and able to give or herself.” And you will notice that all four factors are essential for a child’s flourishing as well! Children need unconditional acceptance, they need to know they will be comforted when distressed, they need to know they can be authentic in their relationship with their parents, and they need people in their lives who are emotionally free enough to give and receive love. In many ways, we cannot give to our children what we don’t have. So, if our adults relationships are impoverished, we need to find a way to build up the love and support we need in order to love and support our children.
Not the Whole Story . . .
I think this research is very important and reminds us that God created us for community. I would add, though, that clearly we can identity other factors that set satisfied mothers apart from those who suffer. In particular, many times our perception of ourselves as mothers impacts our ability to experience joy and satisfaction. Our culture doesn’t value mothering in the way it deserves. If we feel we need to live up to the world’s definition of success, we can struggle with our identity and sense of meaning. If we perceive motherhood as a drudgery, a drag, then we will bring that perception with us into the inevitable demands of motherhood. The first factor in the study sort of hints at this – we need unconditional acceptance. But I think we need people in our lives who value us not only as unique, unrepeatable persons, but also as mothers in particular — who recognize the unique gifts that mothers bring to their families that nobody else can give.